After 40 minutes of discussion about a bill that would rename the Railroad Commission of Texas and make other significant changes to the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, the Senate passed the measure Thursday with a 21-0 vote.
Senate Bill 212, carried by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would rename the agency the Texas Energy Resources Commission. That would reflect its current duties, which no longer include railroads.
A companion bill, House Bill 2166, is moving through the House. This morning the House Energy Resources Committee voted to forward the measure to the full House.
SB 212 would also tighten some of the ethics rules governing the Railroad Commission. The commission is headed by three elected officials, who get many of their contributions from the oil and gas groups, despite also regulating them.
The legislation came about because of "sunset," the periodic review of state agencies that evaluates their effectiveness and results in a bill to address problems.
The bill would require the Railroad Commissioners to resign before running for another office, and it would prevent them from receiving contributions from groups arguing cases before the commission as those cases were being argued. It would also forbid the commissioners from accepting campaign contributions except during the 17 months before their election. (The commissioners are each elected for six-year terms.)
The three commissioners have opposed these ethics changes, arguing that they single out the commission. Commissioners should be treated like other elected officials, they said.
State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to strip out one of the ethics provisions. His proposal would have allowed commissioners to continue to receive contributions for all six years of their term, rather than just the last 17 months.
“This amendment is about fairness, and treating Railroad Commissioners like any other statewide elected officials,” Estes said. Neither the governor nor the lieutenant governor, nor the land or agriculture commissioners, face similar restrictions, he said.
Nichols countered, saying that public perception of political contributions to railroad commissioners was often unfavorable. “Someone can set a rate and rule on cases, where at the very same time receive campaign donations before and after vote,” he said, adding, “It’s important that two of the three [commissioners] not be in campaign mode at any given time.”
Estes expressed dissatisfaction with the proposed new name for the commission, saying that Texas Energy Resources Commission “would cause significant confusion.” Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, proposed an amendment that would have renamed it the Texas Department of Oil and Gas — “T-DOG,” as Hegar had dubbed it in a prior hearing. But Hegar’s effort failed.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, R-Houston, had considered proposing an amendment that would have limited individual political contributions to commissioners to $5,000 per election cycle, but he decided against it, given lack of support.
“In a lot of ways, the agency has become a lapdog,” Ellis said.
HB 2166 no longer contains some of the ethics provisions that the Senate version does. For example, commissioners would still be able to receive contributions from parties involved in contested cases before it, under the version approved by the House Energy Resources Committee. And some of the House members do not think any structural changes need to be made. While voting this morning to send HB 2166 to the House floor, state Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, said: "I don't think [the Railroad Commission] needs fixing. It needs funding."
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